9780312421274Jonathan Franzen is one of those writers whose voracious, omniscient imagination seems at times to have inventoried and articulated the multiplicity of the world in full.  In this he resembles other prodigiously gifted ‘mega-novelists’ of recent American fiction – forbears like Don DeLillo, as well as contemporaries such as the late David Foster Wallace. But what marks Franzen out is his commitment to storytelling on a very human scale. Franzen uses his gifts to excavate human truths not only with unflinching clarity, but also with a touching pathos. Time and again, his insights feel deliciously, thrillingly right.

The book tracks the trials and disappointments of the Lamberts, a middle class, midwestern family whose home town of St Jude is named after the patron saint of lost causes.  Alfred is the family’s crumbling patriarch – a pent-up disciplinarian from a backwards prairie town, who dedicates a life of service to the railroad only to see it gobbled up and asset-stripped by venture capitalists. In retirement, his dignity and self-reliance are similarly devoured by Parkinson’s, his obsolescence underscored by a hi-tech, consumer America that no longer has a use for his kind.

His youngest son Chip is a Foucaultian cultural studies lecturer who (in an episode reminiscent of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain) loses his job after an affair with a precocious student.  He finds his antithesis in his elder brother Gary, a portfolio manager in affluent midlife, depressed, paranoid and alienated from his wife and children. Meanwhile, middle chjld Denise is a bisexual workaholic control freak whose self-destructive wild side erupts in a string of kamikaze love affairs.

Over these wayward children frets their hen-like mother, Enid – neurotic, status-anxious and self-deluding. As Alfred’s condition deteriorates, she begs her children to return home for ‘one last Christmas’ in St Jude, thus providing the dénouement toward which the book’s narrative threads inexorably move.

Franzen exposes the follies, vanities and neuroses of each Lambert with such insight and compassion you get the feeling that, like Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, the author has split himself into three to bring this trio of siblings to life. Each of the Lambert children’s lives are shaped, consciously or subconsciously, by a series of reactions to their overbearing parents.  Franzen brilliantly captures the sticky toxicity of family relationships.

But perhaps the book’s greatest achievement is its heart-rending and lucidly observed study of Alfred and the corrosive onset of Parkinson’s. Franzen drills into the deepest recesses of this proud, complex and initially unsympathetic figure, peeling away layer after layer until we see the vast sadness at his centre.

The Corrections is also extremely funny. Out of the pain of his characters Franzen fashions some brilliantly sustained comic writing. The early chapters in particular vibrate with savage farce, and show that Franzen is at his most laugh-out-loud funny when he writes about men and masculinity.

The novel’s title serves as an inexhaustible metaphor that weaves through the fabric of the story: it is referenced in the miracle Parkinsons drug Correcktall, to which the Lamberts are fighting to get Alfred access; it is a stockbroking term for the catastrophic plunge in the value of Gary’s shares in said drug; it is the political correctness that costs Chip his job, as well as the correctional facility being built on his college campus – and so on. But above all it alludes to a generalised sense of the desperate need to put things right – whether morally, spiritually, clinically or pharmaceutically – in a society obsessed with unattainable normalcy and terrified by the prospect of failure or dysfunction.

This is beautifully realized in the character of Gary, who having attained all the trappings of suburban comfort, begins to experience his home as a kind of panopticon, in which the concerned gazes of his family members become surveillance cameras. He resorts to elaborate shows of positivity in order to disprove the accusation that he is clinically depressed, culminating in a blackly hilarious episode involving a deadly combination of vodka and hedge clippers.

Sadly, Franzen cannot sustain this level of inspiration, and The Corrections goes soft in the middle. Having spent the first half of the novel constructing a compelling family saga,   Franzen can’t resist expanding his canvas. With varying degrees of success, he riffs off themes from the late 90s zeitgeist, including the economic and cultural appropriation of failing Eastern European states, the ascendancy of cultural theory in academe, the long boom of US economic growth and the banalities of mass consumption.

Franzen’s story ranges into places it does not need to visit. In a series of sprawling information dumps, arid plains of narrative open up as Franzen throws in sub-plots and back-stories involving inconsequential characters. A cartoon-like quality creeps in, as the author falls prey to the bad habits of some of his contemporaries, including a touch of satirical excess and some overly knowing symbolism.

Happily, in due course Franzen finds his way back to the story he has so expertly made us care about, and the pay-off – the long anticipated Christmas reunion – is more than worth the wait. Its flabby midsection notwithstanding, at its note-perfect best The Corrections beautifully balances its satirical elements with movingly observed human drama, evoking an utterly three-dimensional world.  An extraordinary feat of empathy and compassion, The Corrections can be ranked among the finest American novels of the past 30 years.

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